• Standing on the Ark, the art team from Splash Damage
    survey the horizon on the Brink.
    CGSociety :: Game Production Focus
    16 November 2010, by Paul Hellard

    Brink is a team-based first person shooter from Bethesda Softworks and created by the artists at Splash Damage. Set on a massive, man-made island city called the Ark, Brink is located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. At the heart of the game lies the conflict between the civilian Resistance and the Ark’s own Security forces. As such, Brink features two separate campaigns (one per side), which a player can experience in single-mode, co-op, or full competitive multiplayer. There's also got extensive character customisation in the game and a mission system that dynamically generates objectives for you based on what’s currently happening on the battlefield.
     
     
    The single biggest difference in Brink compared to older titles is the freedom of movement system called SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain). SMART is designed to remove those artificial movement constraints we’ve all become used to in games. If you walk around an environment in Brink and something looks like you should be able to mantle over it or climb up it, just hold down the SMART button and run towards it – SMART will take care of the rest and get you where you want to go. An incidental benefit of this system is that designers are now free to clutter up their environments with all kinds of props to make them more realistic. In previous games, they had to be very careful as any additional objects in the environment would potentially obstruct the player and be frustrating to them. But in Brink, Splash Damage pretty much had free reign, so the environments not only look more interesting and authentic, but they offer more interesting gameplay thanks to SMART, as well.
     
     
    The Brink team used a heavily modified version of id Tech 4, which they'd already used for a previous title, Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars. For Brink, they improved virtually every system of the engine, and developed new features like Sparse Virtual Texturing, which really helped create Brink’s varied and unique look. Also included was full multi-core support, as well as a few custom bits and pieces to help them achieve the best possible performance on each platform.

    When Art Director Olivier Leonardi joined Brink’s development team, "everything was pretty much at an embryonic stage," he says, "but the idea of a conflict bursting between two very different factions on an artificial floating island was defined enough that I could immediately begin thinking about style, colors and shapes.

    "The Brink back story of the game is truly inspiring. When the seas rose and the refugees started arriving, the Ark rapidly ran out of accommodation space. As it had the most horizontal space available, the shipping container terminal was used first as a temporary camp, and finally, as all contact with the outside world was lost, a shanty town. By the time the game begins, this Container City has become a rusting slum - a dangerously overcrowded tangle of converted container homes that is literally falling away into the sea. It’s the heart of the refugees’ political movements and has the highest concentration of Resistance sympathisers, who are striving for a fairer distribution of what little resources are left.
     
    While this goes on, the Ark’s own Security forces are desperately attempting to maintain
    peace and order from their headquarters located behind a giant concrete wall, erected to
    keep the refugees away from the properties of the Ark’s original Founders. Each man willing
    to work in the clean part of the Ark has to go through these checkpoints and endure long
    and humiliating security checks twice a day.

    The world of Brink is a juxtaposition of contrasting social and political aspects, and the crew worked hard to capture this with their art. For example, the Security forces wear matching, well-maintained outfits, while the Resistance faction uses anything they can recycle or scavenge to custom-make their combat gear. Locations are equally representative of the two sides, with pristine white architecture on the Security-controlled islands clashing with the maelstrom of rusty containers and shipwrecks in the Resistance territories. The palette choices for the characters’ outfits support this sense of opposition as well, setting cold colors and geometric camouflage patterns against warmer tones and chaotic designs.

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    DESIGN FREEDOM
    Being a brand new IP, Leonardi's crew had the privilege of being completely free to design a unique look for the game. "To us, this was very important," he explains. "We wanted the visual style to be fresh and instantly recognisable. Any screenshot taken from Brink had to stand out from the crowd, especially in a market already flooded with dozens of first person shooters."

    The initial Art core team was formed of Tim 'spacemonkey' Appleby (Lead Character Artist), Aaron 'Hoffa' Hoffman (Lead Environment Artist), Laurel 'Tully' Austin and Georgi 'Calader' Simeonov (Concept Artists), and Paul 'mop' Greveson (Senior Technical Artist).

    "Tim and Aaron deserve a lot of credit for their work in the pre-production phase," explains Olivier, " for taking my crazy requests and guidelines and setting them against the technical constraints of a game engine. Tim Appleby helped design the customization system, allowing us to support tons of outfit variations and have them scale over the three different body types, all whilst staying true to our vision for the unique style. Aaron Hoffman was able to quickly get to what we considered to be our quality bar for the game levels, in terms of modeling, texturing and rendering a ‘reference map.’ This would later act as a benchmark, which was extremely critical in helping to achieve how Brink looks today."
     
    Brink’s look is drawn from traditional artistic movements like Hyperrealism. Although Leonardi says he weren't simply trying to mimic them, he was more about using comparable processes.

    Other games clearly inspired Splash Damage, but this was more about broadly reinforcing the decision
    to go for a stylised look. "We felt our audience would be mature enough and receptive to different visual treatments that we could finally move away from photorealism and start having some fun," adds Leonardi.

    Environments

    Architecture and technology on the Ark was based on actual tangible research and existing projects. It is by no means pure sci-fi, as everything needed to be grounded in reality.

    "Because of our near-future setting, we couldn’t just duplicate existing objects," explains Leonardi. "We took inspiration from famous contemporary architects, furniture and car designers, and we designed everything from scratch. Architects like Zaha Hadid, Santiago Calatrava and Toyo Ito have a true ability to create landmarks, and were a great inspiration when we started designing the sweeping curves of the Ark. We took on broad things like Hadid’s radical vision, which breaks with conventional forms of buildings in uncompromising ways; Calatrava’s sculptural forms and dynamic structures; and Ito’s explorations of form within the spatial constraints of a metropolis-like Tokyo. All of these elements really helped to establish a vision that would define our futuristic floating eco city."

    In the game, when sea levels rise and refugees arrive by the thousands, they have to transform piles of shipping containers into makeshift shelters by scavenging ships and recycling things from the 'rich' part of the island. "Among the references we used for this are the giant slums of Mumbai and the ship-breakers of Chittagong in Bangladesh. Basically the only thing we took ‘as is’ were the shipping containers used to build our Container City, a sprawling shanty town built around a disused dock/storage area, and then further expanding into the sea on top of moored refugee boats."
     
    Textures
    The Brink crew used several online databases for selection of textures, but everything used was heavily transformed and processed. They would mask, crop, and blend different images to reproduce surface details or things like weathering. A lot of work was put into getting the surface properties right, especially as the Ark sports a fair amount of unique materials like Arkoral, an experimental concrete made from essentially growing white coral around a structural frame.

    "When tackling the surface texture for Arkoral, we wanted to give the surface an organic feel, one that flowed with the elegant architecture," says Aaron Hoffman. "To do this, we created two textures: one that resembles brain corals as the main surface, and a second, smoother, polished surface for corners and edges. To keep the blend between these two textures organic, a heightmap blend was used so the raised elements from the brain coral texture became polished as the surface neared a corner. The resulting blend was then baked into a single texture. To further amplify the organic look of the material, a simulated subsurface scattering shader was used, similar to that seen on our characters’ skins."

    Hoffman took a heap of his own reference photos for other areas of the Ark. One
    interesting example was the ground from the Container City environment. There wasn't
    sufficient texture reference that reflected years and years of garbage accumulation, where the dark compost base and layers of rubbish and plastic bags could be seen. "To solve that,
    we built a 30cm x 30cm miniature diorama," explains Leonardi. "We first photographed it in diffused light, then spray-painted it white for ambient occlusion, and then further photographed it with key lights from different directions in order to construct a normal map. Thanks to Aaron, who came with the idea - the result is really awesome!"
     
    Characters
    Character artists got involved very early in development, sharing ideas and concept art happened very early as well. It was important to identify what would make the style unique to help establish the game visually and set it apart from other titles. "Olivier suggested we focus on bold forms, avoiding unnecessary noisy details in our art," explains Tim Appleby. "With extra weight and emphasis placed on larger cloth folds, we knew we could achieve striking silhouettes."

    Customisation was key during the concept phase. They had a pretty clear idea of the technical limitations of the character models and asymmetry in the art was very important. This presented a challenge for Concept Artist Laurel Austin, and she dealt with it through smart design and creative thinking, anticipating a lot of the issues encountered and planning solutions for them. "In turn when we reviewed the concepts," explains Appleby, "we spent time considering how the artists would approach the construction of the models, ensuring that everything was achievable."

    "Our character team was quite excited at working on post-apocalyptic character designs," admits Appleby. "We prototyped a range of body types, experimenting with the texturing style, the sculpting and overall feel of the characters. We had to make sure the style would be achievable by everyone on the team, to ensure a strong and consistent feel to our art."
     
    The character faces were one of the larger challenges for the Brink character team. They had to balance out the technical limitations with the need to achieve stylised faces. "Every character and every face needed to be able to share the same performance (animation) data. We modified shapes and the feel of some faces to best fit within the limitations of our system, and I am proud of what we achieved."

    Working on the character concepts for Brink has been a really great experience," says Laurel Austin. "It's not often that you get to build a unique art style from the ground up, and I count myself lucky to have had such a brilliant team to do it with."

    "We feared that going deeply into customization would water down the potential that Brink had for distinctiveness, so when the decision was made to go for fewer, more iconic assets, Olivier, Tim and I sat down together to generate some ideas for characters that typify various gamers’ play-styles," explains Austin. Players would eventually be able to mix and match all the given assets into their own unique character, but in order to simplify the creation process and get the greatest amount of personality into the mix, the artists decided to create their own set of singular characters, the so-called Archetypes.

    When designing the Resistance, it was a matter of figuring out what one could scavenge in the depths of the Ark. Sympathetic defectors from Founder pelgos were inspired by photos of student protestors in Eastern Europe. Resistance slogans are drawn on his sweater in Italian, in order to underscore the international nature of the population of the city. Modern youth culture had a big impact on the direction of this faction. Hip hop, skater and sports influences all mingle together with industrial materials and a tribal raw-ness.
     
    Where the Security was concerned, the challenge was to create a look for the near-future, gun-toting police forces that didn’t look like other games. In the end, it was the full-face headgear that provided the uniqueness. The Look and The Bug are the most salient examples of this approach. The Look was intended to be vaguely reminiscent of the eyes and mouth-pieces of a jumping spider, and the Bug to resemble a Dia de Los Muertos skull, but Splash Damage took care to not be too heavy-handed with those kinds of analogies. There are a huge number of minor influences, but it all had to gel together into a cohesive whole of Brink-ness.

    "One of our biggest goals was to create a set of faces that were unique and expressive," Laurel Austin says. "Not just chisel-jawed heroes, but truly convincing individual characters who have led difficult lives in a difficult place. In the end, we drew a lot on the work of the artist Sebastian Krüger for inspiration in how best to create stylized and compelling faces. This resulted in a highly realistic, gritty level of detail, with features exaggerated just to the point of unreality. The style itself is important, but it also helped avoid the ever-present uncanny valley – the characters are not intended to look photo-realistic, so it’s easier to accept them when they don’t move in a fully naturalistic manner either."
     
    Colors
    Brink’s setting offered a lot of potential to play with colors. The simple fact that the whole environment is set at sea means a huge amount of light is available, with the water essentially acting as a giant mirror. Therefore the strong desire to bring colors back to a genre that was more used to desaturated tones and bloomy skies was perfectly justified! This amount of light generates greater color bleeding, allowing the level of color in the environments to be boosted. The result is very vibrant and vivid. For example, the rusted reds and oranges in the Shipyard area contrast heavily with the deep blue sky above.

    A lot of inspiration for color and light came from Impressionist painters and their interest
    for new developments in color theory, such as achieving a more exact analysis of the
    effects of color and light in nature. They dropped the idea that any object’s shadow had
    to be made up from its color mixed with grey or black. Instead, they used complementary
    colors in shadows, a process that painter Edward Hopper (another major source of inspiration) uses a lot in his own work. "With Brink we really needed to challenge existing standards in the same way," explains Leonardi. "We wanted to change the way players see battlefields in first person shooters to something more distinct. We’re using a broad range of light and weather conditions: from underwater buildings to marinas to ship-breaker yards, we’ve put a lot of variety in the atmosphere on the game, but we always maintained a fair level of saturation in lighting and texturing."

    Related links:
    Brink
    Bethesda Software
    Splash Damage
    Olivier Leonardi
    Laurel Austin
    Tim Appleby
    Aaron Hoffman
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